After almost a year of grad school perhaps one might expect to feel like this:
Sometimes, however, I swear the doctors are looking at me like this ::cough::Dr. Hong::cough::
I suppose it goes with the territory. Humility and feeling completely inadequate are better traits to have in a would-be medical professional than hubris and arrogance. In the midst of raising teenagers, trying to keep my household running–and doing it very poorly I should add, I’m still riding the therapy train.
When I went to my regularly scheduled Tuesday appointment with the FNG, Jack, I thought to myself, “I don’t know if I really require this in my life anymore. I’ve been at this now for over two years. I feel okay. I really do. I’m nowhere near where I was when I started in 2015. My life is completely different now. I’m different.” So, I walked into his office open to talking but unsure of where to begin. He is new. My former therapist is gone, and I miss him. He knew my history. All the stories of my family of origin. It feels exhausting to try to catch Jack up on all that shit. I sighed internally. Maybe I don’t need to!
I sat on the couch and stared back at him. He’s using that approach with me. You know the one. They just stare at you, waiting for you to begin blathering on about something. It is unnerving. So, I told him that I didn’t know where to begin, and he responded:
“How do you feel about how our sessions are going?”
I answered honestly.
“Well, it’s hard to say because you don’t know my history. When I say, for example, that my mother sent me a letter, you don’t know what it means. People who know my history know what that means.”
“Did your mother send you a letter?” he asked.
“Yes, she did, and it means a lot. My mother is a dangerous person, and I’m not sure how to begin to describe that, but I’ll give you a sense.”
I presented “postcard” views into my experiences with my mother. Scenes that would capture her best and worst selves. The utter terror and absurdity of her personality and emotional expressions. The betrayals. The abuse. The distortion campaigns. The violence. The gaslighting. The moments of lucidity. He responded:
“What you describe is in line with borderline pathology.”
“She sounds fragile,” he observed.
“She can be, yes.”
“She also sounds like she has a lot of rage.”
“Talionic rage, and yet no one in the family believes me. She is like this behind closed doors. She presents very differently to the outside world. But, go home and shut the door? She can become homicidal if triggered.” I said.
I then moved onto my father.
“Look, I don’t even know where to start with him. I know that you know some things about him because you confabbed with my former therapist during my transition, but I think I’ll tell you this. Aside from the obvious offenses like his sexual abuse of me during my preverbal years and his preference for military-like violence and torture, he did something else that I think neatly represents his psychology.
He had a book. A kind of photo album of pictures of me from infancy to childhood. Photos he took. Photos of me crying after he had abused me. Like a set of trophies. Some of the photos I remember him taking, and I remember what he had done before he took the photos; and I know that he had this album because I found it when I was visiting him. I was young. I took it out and looked through it, and I felt very confused when I looked through it. I brought it to him and asked him what it was. My father was a steely, cold man. I had never seen him lose that composed veneer–until that moment. He looked angry when I brought that to him, and I felt scared seeing him look like that. Scared because his response was not predictable.”
Jack is not a high affect man. I, on the other hand, express myself like a Muppet. I struggle sometimes when I am faced with low affect expression because it is so opposite to my mode of expression. This is, therefore, the time when words matter. He leaned in and said:
“This is positively evil.”
I never characterized the album or my father as evil before. I just thought that there was something deeply wrong with him. Oddly, I never characterized him as anything. Evil. Huh.
Jack went on to tell me that he had spent time in his post-doc research studying psychopathy and psychopaths. It is hard to describe how relieved I felt. I grew up with a psychopath. I knew that for sure. I was abducted by a psychopath. That was a certainty.
“So, you’ve seen some bad shit then?” I asked.
“Yeah, I’ve seen some bad shit. I’ve studied it. I can take it,” he said, looking into me.
I started to feel better about disclosing, and that brought some relief.
The thing about all this is that I’ve disclosed all this before. There was nothing new about any of this. Did I need to do this all over again? It could simply be re-traumatizing. In the middle of my rumination, Jack leveled a question at me:
“Who knows you? What is it like to have had these kinds of life experiences and be who you are? You’re not sadistic. You’re not cruel. You don’t even express borderline traits. You’re not even that angry. So, to carry all this personal history with you–all this personal contact with, frankly, evil, who gets to know that about you?”
I must have looked like a deer caught in a meadow in the dark of night while a hunter aimed his spotlight at my face. He landed on something, and I was completely caught off guard. I stumbled.
“Who knows me?” I asked trying to buy time.
“Yes, who gets to know you? Who knows all this about you? Who do you tell your stuff to? And who gets to share this pain with you? No one can go through life carrying all this by themselves.”
I started laughing. Tears were starting to stream down my face, but all I could do was laugh. The question was legitimate, but I just couldn’t fathom the idea of sharing all that shit with people. It was laughable. I felt like I was about to cross over into some kind of mania. Can you relate to this? For anyone who has ever seen some serious shit in life, can you imagine sitting around with people or even one person and trotting out some of your worst pain? What do you think would happen based upon your past experiences with people? Awkward coughs and stares? Quick subject changes? Being treated differently? Stigma? Judgment? A game of The Trauma Olympics (“You think your pain is bad? Well, at least you don’t struggle like I do!”)? The idea seemed impossible to me.
My mother losing it and punching holes in walls or ruining family holiday parties is one thing. The kind of violence and abuse that characterized the relationship I had with my father is simply too personal and shocking as was what I experienced in the trafficking environment not to mention that it could very well cause secondary trauma. The people hearing it could be adversely affected. The people I include in that very intimate circle matter. Boundaries matter–for both sides.
And, I think that these reasons are why people who have experienced profound trauma struggle alone and don’t often know how to change it. The result of this is an ontological feeling of desolation that comes and goes–for me anyway. A deep and hidden fear that one will never be truly known. I felt this keenly when my mother’s second husband died. He was a witness to my mother’s most violent cycles of abuse and rage. He knew her when she struggled the most, and he understood the consequences in a way that few did. He knew where I came from. When he died, I felt a grief I never expected. I heard a thought drift through my mind, “There is no one left in the world who knows me.” I didn’t understand it at the time, but I do now. There is no one in the world, aside from my stepsisters, who were witnesses to that nightmare. We know each other’s histories, and there is great validation in that knowing.
In being seen.
I think, therefore, that what Jack was really asking me is, “Who sees you?”
Who sees you and loves you after having seen you?
Whoa. That gets me. I don’t even like that question. This is a question about belonging and significance. And vulnerability. So, I’m going to let the queen of vulnerability and belonging provide some kind of round-about answer:
“True belonging is the spiritual practice of believing in and belonging to yourself so deeply that you can share your most authentic self with the world and find sacredness in both being a part of something and standing alone in the wilderness. True belonging doesn’t require you to change who you are; it requires you to be who you are.” Brené Brown, “Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone”
This is where I was after my session with Jack. Well, this is what therapeutic hubris will get you–a realization that I really do need more time in the Hot Seat.
This is the work of a lifetime. I’m all in.
I highly recommend Brené’s new book. It is so timely for so many people struggling with existential questions of belonging, vulnerability, and finding their place in a world divided.